Racism in the Media

Larry King’s Racist and Exploitative Interview with T.I.

Larry King

After being informed by my best friend, Santresa L. Glass-Hunt, that T.I. would be having an interview with Larry King, I could not wait to turn my television to view the interview.  As a great fan of T.I., I knew that this would be a good interview. Unfortunately, I witnessed Larry King making a conscious effort to exploit and be racist to T.I. and Black men collectively. King was relentless in framing and asking queries that put T.I. in negative light.  Of course, some of my readers will say I am going too far with my calling Larry King’s interview with T.I. racist. In Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, Richard Delgado writes, “CRT [Critical Race Theory] begins with a number of basic insights. One is that racism is normal, not aberrant, in American society. Because racism is an ingrained feature of our landscape, it looks ordinary and natural to persons in the culture” (p. xiv). I could not agree more with Delgado on this point. Racism is so normal in our society that we do not always know it when we see it.  In the postmodern epoch, I see racism operating in a much more troubling way now: It is much more subtle and does not appear in such overt ways as it did during slavery and Jim Crow days. Drawing upon Delgado’s insights about racism, this article serves to highlight how Larry King’s interview with T.I. was intentionally racist and exploitative to T.I. and Black men collectively.

The paucity of sophistication with which the mainstream media employs to discuss and engage Black males has always been problematic. Larry King has continued in the racist and exploitative tradition of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Black male.  In his most recent interview with T.I., he never asked him a question that did not carry some negative weight with it.  Even when he asked one question that was supposed to be seen as a positive question, he decorated it with the negative dimensions of T.I.’s past. King did not want to give any significance to the good work T.I. has done before and after he has been released from prison.  Even when King did show him talking to young people situated in a juvenile detention center, King gave little attention to it.  It was almost like King was showing the small clip of T.I. speaking to the juvenile delinquents as a measure of defense against anticipated charges of racism. He could have avoided charges of racism and bias by making his questions more balanced, and understanding that there is much more to T.I. than what he went to prison for.

King’s line of questioning was aimed at showing that T.I. is dangerous, and for White people not to be fooled by the fact that he is articulate and well-groomed man; he wanted White people to know that this Black man is still dangerous. This is why he continued to ask questions about T.I.’s time in the prison, guns, and violence. While I understand that T.I. was on his show to talk about his recent experience in prison, he was also on the show to talk about his release from prison. I would, therefore, have expected to witness King give him a number of questions about what he is going to do now that he is out of jail. If Mr. King was so interested in talking about T.I.’s involvement with guns, violence, drugs, and his economically and socially disadvantaged upbringing, then why not ask him questions about how he is going to use his experiences with these things to improve his lives and/or the lives of others.  He could have also asked him how these experiences have had an impact on where he currently is in his life.

Instead of asking T.I. queries that are more forward looking, and that can actually demonstrate to people how to move beyond these negative things, King wanted to keep his audience focused on how “horrible” T.I., his life, and upbringing are. Larry King was frustrated with what he saw before him—an educated Black man who has had some misfortunes with the law, but still remains a successful hip-hop artist, business man, actor, and loving father. Some White men simply cannot handle Black men who are young, educated, and successful. Even Black men who have had a little trouble with the law and still remain successful, they seem to threaten the power structure that some White men have worked tirelessly to keep in place. Questions are often raised in the mainstream media about the civility and decency of Black men. T.I. showed Larry King just how civil and decent we can be—even when we know a White man is attempting to exploit us on national television. T.I. never got rude with Mr. King or started yelling at him. You know some people don’t think that Black men can engage in a serious conversation without getting rude and yelling.

One of the positives dimensions of the interview had nothing to do with Larry King himself, but with the people who called in to ask T.I. questions.  You could tell how much the people loved and supported him. One woman was so excited to have the opportunity to talk to T.I. that she admitted she was nervous. It would have been nice to see Larry King reflect some of the goodwill his callers did. After all, T.I. did grant him the first interview he had since he was released from prison. Now, where’s the decency and civility of this White man?

I know many people from Atlanta who say that they grew up in Atlanta where T.I. did (and some even say they went to school with him) and that he had choices to make and he made them. Well, “scholars,” thank you very much for stating the obvious.  When people try to suggest that they “made it” in Atlanta without having to go to prison, then I simply want to say to you congratulations. The social reality is, however, many people’s conditions were and are different, which lead them to different outcomes than those of you who “made it out” of Atlanta without experiencing trouble with the law. As Black people, we have to be careful with our lack of thorough critiques of our own people because we can be just as racist as Larry King was during his interview. Yes, T.I. had choices to make and he certainly made them. Those choices got him a little prison time but yielded him many millions. How many millions do you have?

I heard many Black people say that T.I. is so articulate during and after the interview with Larry King. Yes, he is certainly articulate. I would like, however, for Black people to stop being so stunned when you see and hear an articulate Black man. We can be articulate too! Larry King was unsettled and unnerved by this Black man who he found himself to be superior, yet T.I. was more articulate than he is. Despite how articulate T.I. proved to be, Mr. King wanted America to know that this is still a “thug nigga”—so beware!

Although I thought Larry King was a pretty okay guy before the T.I. interview, he revealed his true racist self during the interview. I am not suggesting that anyone boycott Mr. King or anything of the like. I would just suggest that we need to be more watchful of his line of questioning and treatment of a particular type of Black male—those like T.I. He treats those Black men like Michael Eric Dyson, Marc Lamont Hill, Cornel West, and others of this elite Black male status with great decency, but not those Black males like T.I. His feeling of the superiority of whiteness allowed him to see himself in a higher class position than T.I., leading to a fusion of racism and classism. T.I. deserved to be treated with much more respect.  Today, I salute T.I. for how he handled himself during the interview and for the commitment to helping young people, especially young people of color, to avoid a life of trouble.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison